Column – Smithfield answered the bell when phone was invented

Published 4:05 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

I’m old enough to be among those who might still ask someone to “give me a ring” when they have a chance.

A ring? Phones haven’t truly “rung” in a long while. They once had bells and tiny clappers. An electric current sent through the telephone wire activated the clapper and it rang the bell whenever a call came. When the bell rang, we rushed to pick up before the caller hung up. 

Whoever was closest to the phone had the duty of answering it because there was only one in the house, usually located in a hall or other central location to make it easy to reach.

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If we were on a party line, which most rural residents were, folks up and down the road could also hear your phone ring. Each customer had a set number of rings to distinguish from other customers on the line, but a neighbor just might also pick up and listen for a while — only out of neighborly concern, you understand.

What we didn’t have for quite a while were rotary dial phones. Before my time, there were the classic wooden wall phones. A crank on the side of the phone activated a ring in the phone office, where an operator would connect you to whomever you were calling. 

By the time I came along, more familiar black desk phones were in use. They too had no rotary dial. To make a call, you had to ask for assistance from an operator. I’ve watched my father and mother do that many times. They would pick up the receiver, then click the cutoff buttons a couple of times rapidly, and loudly say “Central” into the mouthpiece.

An operator in the telephone office in Smithfield, who invariably knew them personally, would respond by asking how she could help. 

“Give me Doctor Warren” (local physician Dr. Hugh Warren) was often the only instruction necessary. They would know the number and dial it for you.

The march toward modern phone service took a giant step when rotary phones were introduced. Imagine being able to make a call without going through an operator. It was pretty amazing. And the march continued as “local” calling was extended well beyond local exchanges, mobile phones were invented, and before we knew what had happened, phone books mostly disappeared along with the land lines that were the underpinning of phone service for more than a century.

A bit of local history

Smithfield has been not only an observer of the changes in phone service. It was a pioneer of sorts. The big city phone systems didn’t reach rural areas, and, as local business leaders realized the importance of voice communication, they took matters into their own hands. That’s what happened here.

Lawrence Pitt, now retired, was district engineer and construction manager for Contel, the regional company that served us and merged with Verizon. In 1986, Lawrence wrote, and The Smithfield Times published, a remarkable piece of local historic research he had conducted tracking the history of phone service in Smithfield and Isle of Wight.

It turns out that, in 1886, only 10 years after the telephone was invented, a group of Smithfield businessmen who included Gwaltneys, Bunkleys, Ramseys and Chapmans created the Smithfield Telephone Co. to provide phone service to Smithfield, Chuckatuck, Norfolk and Portsmouth. They had an eye to business because Smithfield was selling commodities, especially peanuts, through the port of Norfolk, and needed daily information to support that connection.

According to Lawrence, it was the earliest local phone company in Virginia; a downright revolutionary idea thus took root on the banks of the Pagan.

Isle of Wight County business interests weren’t to be left out and in 1898 created the Isle of Wight Telephone & Telegraph Co. 

Duplicate phone service was rarely a good idea, Lawrence noted in his history, so the two companies merged for their mutual benefit, creating the Home Telephone Co. in 1901. Further mergers began in 1964 and continued until the Verizon purchase of GTE. It would take a while to unscramble all the merger and purchase dates along the way, and I haven’t even tried.

For many years, though, the Home Telephone Co. provided phone service for the area under a string of managers, workers and phone operators. According to Lawrence, plant managers during those decades were L.W. Sykes, R.S. Cox, J.E. Simpson, T.W. Wright, G.W. Wright and J.A. Everett Jr. 

A tip of the hat to them all, as well as the early investors who had the vision to bring phone communications to Smithfield before any other community in Virginia.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is

Here is Lawrence Pitt’s article as published in The Smithfield Times on Dec. 3, 1986:

Local phone company was Virginia’s first

EDITOR’S NOTE: Continental Telephone is celebrating 100 years of telephone service in Smithfield. The following history of the telephone here was prepared by Lawrence Pitt, district engineer and construction manager for Contel.

In 1886, only 10 years after the telephone was invented, a group of progressive Smithfield businessmen realized the value of the new technology and formed the first incorporated telephone company in Virginia. On April 19 of that year A. Bunkley, E.C. Ramsey, K.K. Chapman, P.D. Gwaltney Sr. and P.D. Gwaltney Jr. applied to the Circuit Court of Isle of Wight County for the authority to establish the Smithfield Telephone Company, an organization which would provide service between Smithfield, Chuckatuck, Norfolk and Portsmouth. 

While the cities then had modest telephone service, there was no corporation there or anywhere in Virginia designated for that purpose. Thus, the Smithfield Telephone Company, forerunner of Home Telephone and Contel, was the earliest in the Commonwealth. The corporation was authorized to issue capital stock in an amount not less than $5,000 nor more than $10,000 to be divided into shares of $100 each. Bunkley was the first president, Ramsey the secretary and treasurer. They and the other founders constituted the board of directors. The scope of the Smithfield Telephone Company’s operation was broadened by authority of the Circuit Court in 1900 to operate in Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Sussex, Surry and Southampton Counties. 

On Oct. 29, 1898, there was incorporated another commercial telephone company by the name of the Isle of Wight Telephone & Telegraph Company. Its officers were J.W. Thomas, president; J.V. Burges, vice-president; W.V. McAnge, general manager; and J.W. Holloway, secretary and treasurer. W.D. Folk, L.C. Brock, C.S. Belts, J.C. Goodrich and W.J. Edwards were directors.

That company’s capital stock was to be not less than $1,000 nor more than $6,000 and was to sell for $25 a share. The Isle of Wight company was to provide commercial telephone service in Smithfield and Suffolk with the consent of the Councils of those towns, and along all public highways in Isle of Wight, Nansemond and adjoining counties. 

Duplicate telephone service has often proven economically unsound and financially disastrous, and that condition was short lived here. The two companies merged into one company — the Home Telephone Company — on Dec. 21, 1901 under an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia. The Assembly recognized P.D. Gwaltney, Frank R. Berryman, P.D. Gwaltney Jr., John E. Maxwell. J.W. Holloway. B.P. Gay and V.W. Joyner “their associates and successors” to be an incorporated body. The Home Telephone Company was given authority to operate commercial telephone service in Isle of Wight, Surry, Sussex, Southampton, Nansemond and Norfolk. The new company was authorized to issue up to $150,000 in stock for $25 a share. 

When one considers that Alexander Graham Bell invented and obtained his first telephone patent in 1876 and gave his first public demonstration at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in that year and assuming that it took five or more years to perfect the telephone for commercial use, Smithfield citizens demonstrated by organizing the state’s first Telephone Company in 1886, just 10 years after the first patent was issued, that they were alert and progressive, realizing the possibilities of this new means of communications by voice. 

Unfortunately, the records of the operations of the Company for the period from 1901 to 1913 are not available as they were destroyed by fire the morning of Dec. 15, 1912. In the early 1900’s the central Office was located on the second floor over the Bank of Smithfield and the business office was between the Bank and a store operated by a Mr. Emmitt Wilson. 

After the fire the offices were moved to the second floor over the Post Office Building and service restored with as little delay as possible. In fact, before the office was completely destroyed by fire, the Norfolk and Suffolk toll circuits were terminated in the Company president’s home by L.W. Sykes, Manager at that time, assisted by R. Sidney Cox. and anyone wishing to place long distance calls would go to that location. 

The Company operated from the Post Office location until it purchased, by order of the Board of Directors. April 7, 1921, a building located on South Church Street. During the years between 1901 and 1921, the officers of the Company remained the same except for the Secretary and Treasurer. The first secretary and treasurer after incorporation was, as has been stated, Mr. A.S. Barrett, then following in succession — Lucy C. McClelland, P.S. Rouse, Molly H. Chalmers. George Ben Stott, Mrs. R.M. Jordan and on July 29. 1919, Miss A.K. McClelland was elected. 

Plant Managers over the period of years changed from L.W. Sykes, R.S. Cox, J.E. Simpson, T.W. Wright, G.W. Wright and J. A. Everett Jr.

 Chief Operators have been Miss Sadie Thompson. Mrs. R.W. Silling. Mrs. Gillie Clark, Miss May Goodrich. Miss Grace Andrews, Miss Lucy Thompson, and Mrs. Estelle D. Livesay. When we reminisce and think of this period in 1920, we recall a very serious thing occurring which seems humorous now. Telephone service was temporarily interrupted in Smithfield by a clash of opinions between the President and the operators in the traffic department over vacations, resulting in most of the young ladies taking unauthorized vacations at one time. To restore service, P.D. Gwaltney III and W.J. Holloway took over and operated the switchboards night and day for a period of three days, having meals sent in from the local restaurant, until some semblance of order could be restored and some of the young Ladies who were on unauthorized vacations returned. 

During the depression years, the Company kept its head above water by every means it could possibly employ and at one time it resorted to the use of the barter system for payment of accounts. The stock room was filled with coops of chickens, crates of eggs and country hams hanging from the rafters. In fact, it was reported that the President saw the Plant Superintendent talking to one of the subscribers in front of the office that had an animal in the back of his cart and the President sent the Plant Superintendent a note that under no circumstances would the Company accept a bull in payment of any outstanding account. 

In 1936, the Directors started on a complete plant rehabilitation program. First, the program included the replacement of native poles with long life creosoted poles, at the same time, adopting new and modern engineering plant specifications. Then followed replacement of all outside iron wire installed in well balanced transposition sections. Toll lines were revamped and refined to obtain more talking circuits from existing physical circuits. This refinement also permitted superimposing carrier frequencies on voice frequency physical circuits to establish more talking circuits on the existing outside plant. 

The year 1939 marked the turning point in our outlying areas — our first dial exchange was cut over at Windsor — Chuckatuck and Crittenden followed in rapid succession in 1941, just prior to Pearl Harbor. Also in 1941, after several trips to Washington seeking priorities, the switchboards in Smithfield were replaced with multiple boards to handle the greatly increasing traffic loads. For several years, during Government material freezes and for lack of trained employees lost to the armed forces, the Company was forced to curtail its expansion program. However, in 1947, Battery Park/Rescue areas were converted to dial. In 1948, our manual exchanges at Surry and Dendron were converted to dial and in 1950, a dial exchange was installed at Zuni. On Jan. 1, 1964, the Home Telephone and Telegraph Company of Virginia and the Home Telephone Company, with its head office located in Smithfield, merged. The Smithfield Company was operating exchanges at Smithfield, Zuni, Dendron. Chuckatuck. Crittenden, Surry Windsor and Battery Park with a total of 4,919 stations. 

W.J. Holloway, president of the Smithfield Company became operating vice-president of the Home Telephone and Telegraph Company of Virginia and moved to company headquarters in Emporia. At the end of November, 1964 the company operated 25,307 telephones in 26 exchanges. The company employed 157 women and 80 men at this time with an estimated annual payroll of $1,000,000. Holloway died June 30, 1965. C.J. Logan was elected Executive Vice President Aug. 1, 1965, and remained in this office until the merger with Continental Telephone Corporation in August, 1968. Today, the Smithfield office of Contel offers the most recent technological advances in communications with such features as touch tone, call forwarding, call waiting, speed calling, conference calling, data communications and much more. Its computerized record system accounts for approximately 115,000 stations from Stafford County to Knotts Island. North Carolina.

Phones began to ring

By: Helen King 

Five loaf rings — that was ours. Really, any number over four rings was ours as sometimes the operator got carried away and rang eight or nine times. People from Norfolk visiting used to say to us, “How can you tell your ring? Doesn’t it bother you to hear the phone ringing so much?” 

Well, it didn’t. We quickly got used to it. Besides I cannot remember the time when we didn’t have s phone. Only our family could call Smithfield free of charge. A visitor from town couldn’t call home unless she was spending the night and she had to tell the operator that fact. Since we had to ring the operator to get all numbers, it was easy to keep tab on calls. Anyone in town calling us had to pay (5c, I believe). Needless to say we didn’t get many town calls. Of course, we could call home from Smithfield without charge just by identifying ourselves to the operator. Those were the days when the operators knew everyone’s voice. 

We must have been the first on Day’s Point to have a phone. I remember getting a call from Washington, D.C. for Mr. Charles White, who was visiting his sister, Mrs. Roy Conklin, up on the river. This was daring World War I when Mr. White was one of the famous “dollar a year men.” Anyway, the operator knew who had the closest phone to the Conklins and called to get a message to Mr. White. My mother sent me. I must have demurred about going as I remember her telling me that Mr. White would probably give me a quarter for my trouble. 

And trouble it certainly was. I had to walk through the Stremel’s cornfield, then climb the fence and tramp through the tall grass of the Conklin’s Japanese persimmon orchard. For the life of me, I cannot remember what gratuity, if any, Mr. White gave me but he must have given me something. I would remember if he hadn’t. The Havertys put in their own telephone line to connect with us as C.D. Haverty was the only one up and down the road with a telephone out of Smithfield. 

The five Haverty families ordered phones, lines, etc. from Sears Roebuck and put up their poles, stretched the lines, installed the boxes, filled them with batteries and were in business. Our ring on the Haverty line was one long ring. It wasn’t at all confuting: the two phones had their own distinctive voices. We could call Smithfield for the doctor or to transact business for any of the four families on the line. In that way we kept up with all their business. 

One of the favorite pastimes was “listening in.” One lady defended this pastime as justifiable because she was interested in the neighbors, not curious. No one ever took that seriously. Sometimes a rooster would crow and give the listener sway. When did we change from going through an operator to a dial phone? Sometime around 1940, I believe. The rest is too recent to be history. One by one the Havertys got their own phones out of Smithfield and the family private line died a natural death.

 If we had only kept the boxes they would be collector’s items by now. The interest is gone when the phone rings only for us and never for the neighbors. That’s progress. After all, telephony in Isle of Wight County is one hundred years old this year of 1986. And it all started with one business phone for the P.D. Gwaltney Peanut Company.